Las Vegas Summer League is not a useless endeavor. Sure, in some ways it can be a bit of a grind for everyone involved given that it's a seemingly interminable 10-day slog of hoops that acts as a convention for everyone involved in the NBA. But the event also acts as a nice way to introduce rookies to the NBA world, and an opportunity for undrafted free agents to make their mark in one of the world's most public job fairs makes for good competition.
Monday night's "Championship" between the Bulls and Timberwolves was even a fun basketball game to watch. But the No. 24-seeded Timberwolves were in the title game after losing their three "regular season" Summer League games with top pick Kris Dunn involved, then won the next three after pulling him from action. It's not totally a farce, but it's kind of a farce—the games themselves are glorified scrimmages, but given that they're played by 350 of the world's best basketball players, there's plenty of entertainment to be found.
But if you watch Summer League games to scout talent, you're going to get some highly incomplete answers. Has Emmanuel Mudiay added anything in his time off as a rookie? Maybe, at least as far as Summer League can tell us. Has D'Angelo Russell become more mature and started to take steps toward living up to his immense potential? Ehhhh, that's a bit less certain. So I'll skip those, and will also skip the prognostication/projection on bigger names like Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram—they were typical one-and-done rookies in that there major positives and negatives—and focus on the entertainment part.
Call these the Summer League Awards, handed out in the spirit of an annual event where luminous performances by the likes of Anthony Randolph, Josh Selby, and Nate Robinson are gone, but never, ever forgotten. We'll begin with a big one.
The Anthony Randolph "Irrational Excitement" Award: Thon Maker, Milwaukee Bucks
Randolph led the Summer League in scoring at 26.8 points per game in 2009, finished in the top five in steals and blocks, and also grabbed 8.5 rebounds per contest. Basically, he looked every bit the all-around superstar that the Warriors hoped for when they selected him 13th overall, and seemed miles ahead of a young teammate named Stephen Curry, who struggled to finish 47.1 true-shooting percentage. Randolph did become a star, albeit for Lokomotiv in Russia, but these highlights show just how dominant he was when he wasn't forced to play actual NBA basketball.
This year, the irrational excitement award goes to Maker, who has Bucks fans and many other observers falling head over heels after he averaged 14.2 points and 9.6 rebounds per game in Las Vegas. Considered a massive project and something of a reach as a lottery pick, Maker utilized his high-level motor and foot speed to make an impact at Summer League, and convinced some that he could be an impact player sooner rather than later. Remember, Maker's specific skill-set might fit the Bucks better than any other organization in the NBA: his ability to move his feet defensively matches nicely with Jason Kidd/Sean Sweeney's switch-heavy defensive scheme, and his shooting potential might one day be able to help a team that could be starved for it, given Giannis Antetokounmpo's heavy offensive role.
You'll notice a lot of "coulds" in that last paragraph, which should give you pause. While Maker was productive, I'm not necessarily sure the skill level he displayed will translate quickly to the NBA. Motor tends to play up at an event like Summer League, as the games tend to devolve into semi-organized chaos. More importantly, many of the skill-based issues that Maker showed as a prep player were apparent. Maker struggled to handle passes anywhere near the edge of his catch radius, and also didn't show a ton in the way of vertical explosiveness in small spaces; he doesn't bend his legs when leaping and still doesn't have much in the way of strength in his lower body. He wasn't an efficient summer scorer, either, only hitting 38 percent of his attempts from the field and 31 percent of his threes.
Pair those questions with the general defensive growing pains that rookies show at events like this—Maker pulled off the near-impossible feat of fouling out of a 40-minute game with a 10-foul limit in the Bucks' third game—and I'm buying into the hype just yet. Makes is still young, and no one should write him off, but I'm not sure he actually showed nearly as much as his stats suggest.
The Damian Lillard "This Looks Very Translatable" award: Kris Dunn, Minnesota Timberwolves
Back in 2012, Lillard showed the world that he was ready for the NBA by dominating the Summer League and winning MVP honors. He averaged 26 points and five assists in Vegas, then went on to win Rookie of the Year with largely the same style. It was one of those times where a rookie showed out in the summer, living up to lofty expectations, and then carried that level of performance into the actual NBA season.
This year, the player who came in and dominated like a man among boys was Dunn. In two games, he averaged 24 points, shot efficiently on the interior, and utilized his lightning-quick first step to get wherever he wanted on the floor. Oh, and he showed off his tenacity on the glass, some court vision, and a penchant for getting into passing lanes. Really, the only thing he didn't do well was shoot from distance.
As with Maker, it's worth noting that Dunn's game is one that plays well at Summer League. He's constantly active and has a supremely high motor, and that could work to inflate his stats a bit. However, this just looked a bit different. Dunn was borderline unstoppable with the ball, and looked every bit like the 22-year-old with a man's frame and mature game that he is, feasting opponents who couldn't match up.
The Kent Bazemore "Future Role Player Somewhere Else" Award: Tyus Jones, Minnesota Timberwolves
In July, Bazemore signed a four-year, $70 million contract with the Atlanta Hakws. He wasn't always considered such a high-end talent. Back in the early 2010s, Bazemore was on the Warriors' bench as an energy guy, more known for celebrating than for playing. Things started to change at the 2013 Summer League, where Bazemore and Ian Clark led the Warriors to a 7-0 record and event championship, with Bazemore averaging over 18 points per game. It was an impressive run that helped to get him more scouting looks outside of Golden State, and likely helped lead to his trade to the Los Angeles Lakers in early 2014, where he carved out a NBA role for himself before hitting it big in Atlanta.
After averaging 20 points and seven assists per game, Jones is the winner of this year's award, as well as the Summer League's official MVP award. Like Bazemore in Golden State, Jones is stuck behind a collection of talent in Minnesota that includes Ricky Rubio and the aforementioned Dunn, both of whom are better players and also better fits for in new coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive scheme. Still, Jones showed plenty of the skills in Vegas that made him a first round pick last season. He hit threes, passed the ball, and did a decent job limiting turnovers given his usage rate. I'm not necessarily writing off Jones' career in Minnesota, especially given a lot of likely future roster movement under Thibodeau. But it's clear that he has talent to help someone soon, even if he's stuck on the bench for now.
The Josh Selby "I Don't Know If This Will Work in the Real NBA, But It Was Fun to Watch" Award: Jordan McRae, Cleveland Cavaliers
Selby just thoroughly dominated the 2012 Summer League, winning co-MVP honors with Lillard. Still, even while it was happening, there were some questions as to how his play would translate to the next level. For instance, the 36 percent three-point shooter at Kansas shot, uh, 64 percent from distance in Vegas. He was a 6-foot-2 scoring guard who didn't show off much in the way of potential to play as a point guard, so much so that he fell out of the Jayhawks' rotation during his sole season in Lawerence. The cascade of threes had to end at some point, right?
It did, and pretty quickly. Selby played overseas last season in Turkey, and in his last two seasons, he's hit 34 percent of his 300-plus three-point attempts. This year, the hot scorer in the gym was McRae, currently under contract with the Cavaliers. He averaged 24.6 points per game while only shooting 37 percent from deep, but his prodigious ability to get to the foul line and convert sustained him, as he made 9.4 of his 11.6 free throws per game.
Will McRae be able to do the same for Cleveland during the NBA regular season? I have absolutely no idea. He clearly possesses the ability to get into the lane, but smarter defenders will probably be able to angle their bodies a bit better and get themselves into better position to defend him, especially if his jump shot isn't falling like it wasn't in Vegas. The talent is there, he just needs to round out his game in the way that Selby never did.
The Seth Curry Top Free Agent Award: Co-Winners: Christian Wood, Philadelphia 76ers; Jonathan Gibson, Dallas Mavericks
Last year, the younger Curry got his last chance at NBA glory, and took full advantage by leading the event in scoring and doing a turning in a solid off-brand impression of his brother. I don't even mean that negatively: Curry was terrific in the pick-and-roll for New Orleans, made good decisions, and hit shots from distance, earning himself a guaranteed contract with the Sacramento Kings. He did enough work there during the actual NBA season to secure a recent deal with Dallas for two guaranteed years at nearly $6 million. Not a bad trajectory!
This summer's Seth Curry Award winners both have pretty cool backstories. Wood was a legitimate first-round talent last season who plummeted down draft boards after showing up to both pre-draft workouts and the combine out of shape. He ended up going undrafted, but made the Philadelphia's roster out of training camp and got into 14 regular seasons games before the team cut him so that Jerry Colangelo could sign Elton Brand. Even though the Sixers have quite a few bigs and may not need Wood, it seems rather likely the team would rather have him on a minimum deal for the next three seasons than the dignified husk of Brand. Wood averaged 16 points and six rebounds per game at Summer League, playing efficient basketball and earning a two-year deal with the Charlotte Hornets in the process. It's well-deserved for a player who has seemingly made a commitment to his basketball career, and the Hornets are buying low on a promsing lottery ticket who is only 20 years old.
Gibson, on the other hand, is another 6'2" scorer in the Selby mode, albeit with a different pedigree. Since graduating from New Mexico State, he's gone from Turkey, to Israel, back to Turkey, to the Italian second division, to China, to Iran, back to China, and now to NBA. That's one heck of an itinerary. Gibson finally found his home last season though, and led the Chinese League in scoring last season by a massive amount, putting up 42 points per game and hitting a ton of threes in the process. With a lot of guards in Dallas, it's unclear how many minutes he'll get after receiving a guaranteed minimum deal with Dallas for this season plus two non-guaranteed years. But he was just as efficient at getting buckets in Vegas this year, and his shooting ability and feel for scoring should provide him a chance to make an impact.
The Kawhi Leonard "Yeah, This Guy is Too Good to be Playing in Summer League" Award: Co-Winners: Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors; Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Also in 2012—and wow, did Summer League peak in 2012?—Leonard played in a few games for San Antonio after a successful rookie season. He was so immediately, obviously better than everyone else—averaging 25 points a game and basically getting wherever he wanted all over the floor—that the Spurs sat him the rest of the way. Of course, in true Leonard fashion, there are no highlights of him just destroying dudes in Summer League out there on the Internet. But trust me, it really happened.
This year, one of those Kawhi Awards goes to Powell, who defended guys like Paul George and Dwyane Wade during Toronto's Eastern Conference Finals run, then played five games in Vegas. Powell's competitiveness is beyond even NBA norms, and he played in all of Toronto's games, scoring nearly 20 points per contest and putting up a near true-shooting percentage approaching 60 percent. All the while, he just dominated opponents physically due to his strength and conditioning. Why the Raptors didn't stop him from playing in every game is beyond me. He proved nothing beyond that the fact that he has nothing to prove.
His co-winner was stopped from playing in every game, as Booker only played two games in Vegas. The brief stint included 26 points and 6.5 assists per game, and one beautiful trash-talking match with R.J. Hunter. Booker looked like a breakout waiting to happen at the end of last season, and should be poised for a massive year. He showed a refined, mature game that included a quicker release on his shot and improved vision from all over the floor. He showed it in Vegas, but still.
The Solomon Hill "Third-Year Player at Summer League who Disappoints" Award: Nik Stauskas, Philadelphia 76ers
Hill was so lame during last season's Orlando Summer League after a subpar year in the starting lineup for Indiana that the Pacers decided to not pick up his fourth-year option on his rookie scale contract, making him a free agent after the season. That's not the end of the story, happily, as Hill subsequently blossomed into a versatile small-ball 4 who can defend multiple positions and potentially knock down threes; he signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the Pelicans this summer. Again: it's summer league.
This year, Nik Stauskas is the player at risk of seeing his fourth-year option declined after another poor summer showing. His only saving grace at this stage might be that his team has a ton of cap space and can afford to take a chance on him. However, he hasn't shown much during either of his NBA stops, either, and a prospect who once looked like an elite shooter—so good he could fall back on a career as a role player if none of his other skills translated—has mysteriously lost his shot.
For Stauskas, it's getting late. He hit 44 percent of his college threes, and 70 triples in five minutes in the rain in his driveway. I'm not sure if it's confidence, or the difficult adjustment to the NBA game, or a Sacramento Kings curse following players even to other NBA cities, but it's unfathomable that he has become a below-average jump shooter. That's what he looks like now, though, and he'll need to turn it around quickly or else his NBA career is in jeopardy.
The Nate Robinson "Best Player at Summer League" Award: Trey Lyles, Utah Jazz
Robinson is the ultimate Las Vegas Summer League legend. The diminutive point guard had his jersey momentarily retired at the event after becoming a four-time participant and MVP winner. If Summer League has all-time records, Robinson likely holds a few, and he's the only plausible choice for a pseudo-MVP award.
It's unlikely Lyles will match Robinson's all-time Summer League dominance, but he did indeed seem to be the most complete player in Vegas this summer. The Jazz forward came into Vegas in good shape after a bit of a rough go in the Salt Lake City Summer League, and put up averages of 29 points and seven rebounds over two games while making a bunch of threes and hitting his free throws. It was the kind of growth that you expect to see out of players heading into their sophomore seasons, and Lyles showed it in ways that could benefit the Jazz next season.
More than anything, Utah needs guys they can count on to knock down shots from the frontcourt. Lyles can play with either Derrick Favors or Rudy Gobert next season at the power forward position, and help to stretch the floor. He also displayed the ability to lead the break and to create offense for himself by attacking closeouts and posting smaller players. Basically, Lyles looks like the all-around offensive force that the Jazz frontcourt needs. If he can carry this play into the regular season, the team should be able to live up to its billing as a dark horse threat to the Warriors. On the other hand, it's only Summer League, so who really knows?
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